Sexual slavery victims to be remembered

Statue honouring ‘comfort women’, Uniting Church in Ashfield

The 7th International Memorial Day for Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Victims will be commemorated on Wednesday August 14th. The event will also coincide with the 1400th time that regular Wednesday rallies have been held in Seoul that have called for a resolution of the Japanese military sexual slavery issue.

It is estimated that 200,000 girls and young women were forced into sexual slavery in colonial times and during WW2 by the Imperial Japanese Army. Countries where this systematic sexual abuse took place included Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, Manchukuo, Taiwan (then a Japanese dependency), the Dutch East Indies, Portuguese Timor, New Guinea and other Japanese-occupied territories.

To mark this 7th International Memorial Day, the Friends of ‘Comfort Women’ in Sydney held a Peace Together film event at the Korean Cultural Centre on August 10th.

‘Daily Bread’

The first movie screened was ‘Daily Bread’ (2018), an Australian short film produced by Ruby Challenger, the granddaughter of Jan Ruff O’Herne who was one of thousands of Dutch women held in a Japanese POW camp in Ambarawa, Indonesia. O’Herne and a number of other young women were subsequently taken from the camp by Japanese military officers and interned in a military brothel in Semarang.

Following her liberation at the end of the war, O’Herne married in 1946. After living in Britain, she and her husband emigrated to Australia in 1960.  Like many so-called ‘comfort women’, O’Herne remained silent about her war-time experiences. Only in 1992 did she break her silence when she spoke out in support of three Korean ‘comfort women’ who publicly demanded an apology and compensation from the Japanese government. In 1994 O’Herne published a personal memoir entitled Fifty Years of Silence, which documents the difficulties she endured while secretly living the life of a war rape survivor.

Ruby Challenger attended the film event and was interviewed after the screening of her film. Challenger has previously explained that she produced the film in order to raise national awareness of the ‘comfort women’ saga and to keep the past wrong-doings alive. During the interview, Challenger confirmed that she is currently working on a feature length film based on her grandmother’s experiences and the Japanese system of ‘comfort stations’ that existed during WW2.

‘The Apology’

The second movie shown was the Canadian documentary ‘The Apology’ (2016) filmed and directed by Tiffany Hsiung. Now elderly, the documentary affectionately refers to the surviving victims of Japanese military sexual slavery as ‘grandmothers’.  The three ‘grandmothers’ featured in the documentary are Grandma Gil from South Korea, Grandma Cao from China and Grandma Adela from the Philippines.

Grandma Gil is one of the best-known survivors in South Korea. The documentary reveals that she has been attending the weekly Wednesday rallies in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul for years. It also shows her travelling to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to deliver a petition signed by 1.5 million people on behalf of survivors across Asia and the Pacific.

Tiffany Hsiung has said that the documentary is designed to allow all three women to speak for themselves and, through their stories, to help viewers gain a better understanding of the brutality they suffered and how they managed to cope with the physical and psychological trauma that plagued their lives after the war.

Past attempts to resolve the sexual slavery issue

South Korea and Japan have attempted to settle the sexual slavery issue in the past. These have included the 1965 Treaty, the 1993 Kono Statement and, more recently, the 2015 Agreement endorsed by Prime Minister Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The 2015 Agreement, however, has been unravelling. A poll taken in 2017 indicated that 70 percent of South Koreans believe that the issue has not been resolved due to its failure to take into account the feelings and opinions of the victims.

The Moon Jae-in government appears to have responded positively to this public sentiment. In December 2017, a government-appointed panel handed down its review of the Abe-Park agreement and concluded that the deal had failed to adopt a victim-oriented approach. Such an approach is widely recognised as a universal standard in resolving human rights issues. This was reinforced in August 2018, when the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Tokyo to adopt a victim-oriented approach to resolving the dispute.

The Korean Council

Since its foundation in 1990, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (the Korean Council) has been a leading advocate for restoring the dignity and rights of the surviving ‘comfort women’. In particular, it has called upon the Japanese government to:

  1. Acknowledge the war crime;
  2. Reveal the truth in its entirety about the crimes of military sexual slavery;
  3. Make an official apology;
  4. Make legal reparations;
  5. Punish those responsible for these war crimes;
  6. Accurately record the crime in history textbooks; and
  7. Erect a memorial for the victims of the military sexual slavery and establish a historical museum.

Not only has the Korean Council been lobbying Japan to address these objectives, but it has also raised the issue at international human rights forums such as the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Asian Solidarity Conference. From upholding the dignity and human rights of the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery, the Korean Council has also worked to end wartime violence against women, preventing the re-emergence of Japanese militarism and fostering peace in Asia and around the world.

Australia’s role

More international pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Japanese government to address the objectives listed above.

There is evidence to show that in the past Australia has failed to defend the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery. For example, Caroline Norma has reported that “the Japanese military organised the sexual enslavement of women in an Australian territory during the war (New Guinea), which we inexplicably failed to prosecute in trials after the war.

She has also reported that civic groups in Papua New Guinea today “retain evidence of tens of thousands of cases of Japanese military war crimes, and cry out for assistance in approaching Japan for recognition and restitution.”

Norma argues however that “Australia has never responded to these appeals, despite the enduring fact of our own historical liability for failing to protect women in an Australian jurisdiction and failing to pursue justice for them after the war.1

In contrast to this history, Australian needs to support its neighbours who are seeking justice and start playing an active role in persuading Tokyo to resolve the sex slavery issue once and for all.



Nick Deane attended and spoke at a rally in support of Korean ‘comfort women’ on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. The rally took place in O’Connell Street (Sydney CBD) outside the Japanese Embassy. Nick’s speech can be read here.

Jan Ruff O’Herne died in Adelaide on August 20, 2019, aged 96.


1. Caroline Norma, ‘Australia must face up to its role in the lack of justice for comfort women’, Sydney Morning Herald, December 30, 2015.

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